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Wisch: Groce’s Leadership A Bright Spot in Dark Illini Saga

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John Groce. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

John Groce. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

Dave Wischnowsky Dave Wischnowsky
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in...
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By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) The T-shirts lie.

Basketball isn’t life. Not even when your life is basketball.

And in light of the season-long suspension of Illini sophomore basketball player Darius Paul that was announced Tuesday and saw details emerge Wednesday, the University of Illinois is fortunate to have a hoops coach in John Groce who apparently understands that.

Because it’s refreshing to know that some schools are actually still in the teaching business in an era in which college athletes can sully a school’s reputation even while winning a Heisman Trophy (Florida State’s Jameis Winston) and get arrested for shoplifting, be suspended from a team, be sentenced to community service, complete community service and be reinstated to said team all in the span of just five days (again, Jameis Winston).

Even when it comes to their high-profile athletes.

In the three weeks since the 20-year-old Paul was arrested in the early morning hours of April 22 by university police during a murky incident and charged with underage drinking and resisting arrest, there hasn’t been much good news emanating from Champaign.

In the wake of the arrest, after which Groce suspended Paul indefinitely while the legal process unfolded, accusations of racial profiling by the university police were quickly expressed by many, including high-profile former Illini player and current basketball broadcaster Stephen Bardo. Next came arguments that Groce was being too hard on a kid for just having a few drinks like many college kids do. And, eventually, whispers of drug-related issues involving Paul began to circulate among the Illini circles, which came to public light on Wednesday with the revelation that he had previously failed two screenings for marijuana.

All of those issues are touchy and tricky ones to manage, but through it all, I was impressed at how Groce kept a patient and measured hand as he allowed the process to play out, rather than perhaps trying to rush it or by making any rash disciplinary judgments before all the facts were in.

It wasn’t until nine days after Paul’s arrest that Groce spoke for the first time about the incident, at which time he spoke wisely about it.

On May 1, he told 87.7-FM The Game about his team: “These guys are 18- to 22-year-olds, we take a lot of pride in trying to impact their lives. I tell the guys all the time, the greatest gift God gave us was the gift to choose and choose wisely. Obviously, Darius put himself in a situation which was not a great choice.”

And in regards to Bardo’s concerns of racial profiling in Champaign, expressed via Twitter in what became a heated exchange with some of the broadcaster’s followers, Groce said, “Obviously, I have a great deal of respect for Stephen and what he achieved at the University of Illinois as a player and as a student. The number of times that he’s said to me and expressed to me that he wouldn’t be in the situation he’s in in his career without that Illinois degree, without the experience he had at the University of Illinois, I really believe he loves the place.

“There’s no one I love in this world I love more than my wife and my two kids. When you have a child, that love you have for the child is like none other. Stephen’s own son goes to the University of Illinois. If he didn’t feel strongly about the University of Illinois, in terms of an environment where his own son, his own blood, could grow and develop as a person and a student, I’m sure he loves (Stephen Paul) as much as I love Conner and Camden, he probably wouldn’t send him there. That tells me we’re on track with that.”

Groce addressed each of those issues with aplomb and did the university proud even when the topics were nothing for the university to be proud about. The Illini coach then did the same on Wednesday when he announced in a statement that, “After a thorough review of Darius’ year, which includes multiple transgressions, I am suspending Darius from all team-related activities for the entire 2014-15 season.

“I feel this penalty is necessary to help Darius as a person. We will continue to support him through this process.”

One assumes that Groce could have gone easier on Paul and suspended him for just part of the year, but he didn’t. One can also assume that he could have gone harder on him by dismissing Paul from the team completely, but he didn’t do that either.

Instead, Groce simultaneously showed Paul both tough love and devotion, teaching him that basketball really isn’t life, even if both the coach and the player have made their lives about basketball. Hopefully in the coming year, Paul can finally heed this loud wake-up call from his coach and begin to get his life straightened out. Basketball can come later.

And in what’s been a stormy few weeks for the university, Illini basketball fans should take comfort in knowing that Groce has now shown he can coach both basketball and life.

Maybe somebody should put that on a T-shirt.

Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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